Solving fashion's product returns problem

A significant portion of returned clothing is sent to landfill, according to a new study by the British Fashion Council’s (BFC) Institute of Positive Fashion (IPF). 

Clothing The fashion and textiles industry accounts for five per cent of global emissions and consumes 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, alongside other non-renewable resources. It’s also a significant source of pollution, releasing 500,000 tonnes of microfibres into the ocean from washing processes each year.

The BFC's new report 'Solving fashion's product returns' found that fashion returns are a significant part of the problem, and cost the UK fashion industry at least £7 billion in 2022, in part a result of growing e-commerce during the pandemic.

In 2022, UK returns were estimated to have generated about 750,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, 350,000 tonnes of which come from the reverse logistics processes associated with returns –  such as dry-cleaning and repackaging. There is also a significant amount of waste generated through returns.

BFC Returned Clothing Stats

Approximately three per cent of returns will remain unsold due to issues such as the item being out of season. It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of those returns are sent to landfill and another 25 per cent are incinerated, with only the remaining 25 per cent being recycled. This level of waste implies that the industry is producing an unnecessarily high volume of clothing items, which – coupled with an average CO2 footprint of 19.5 tn per tonne of clothing for its whole lifetime – contributes to the industry’s significant emissions and environmental damage.

Caroline Rush CBE, Chief Executive of the British Fashion Council, said: “To arrive at a circular fashion economy, we need to challenge current systems and mitigate waste across all operations including product returns, which is hugely damaging to both business and the health of the planet.

“For our first Circular Fashion Ecosystem Phase Two Project, we investigated the reasons behind returns and explored features and policies that would reduce their need and associated impact.

“The research led us to two target outcomes which when combined, create a target state where the fashion industry can be held accountable for our products and enable a more responsible future.”

Solution for the impact of returned clothing

The report identified two targets to minimise the volume of returns:

Product returns are mitigated at the point of sale: Reduce the potential for product returns;
Product returns are handled more efficiently: Optimise the reverse logistics and operations process for efficiency and sustainability

The BFC says that the most effective way for the industry to reduce returns is for retailers and brands to leverage data and digital solutions to capture insights on the driving factors behind returns and integrate them into a closed feedback loop to mitigate issues causing returns before they occur – for example by fixing sizing issues.

Failing this, the institute advises optimising return processes. Reverse logistics currently consists of multiple steps, many of which – such as transportation and warehousing – are environmentally damaging and costly. The report says that the key to ensuring that reverse logistics are made more sustainable is to invest in the right technologies and processes, for example, EV trucks and automated warehousing.

The British Fashion Council and Institute of Positive Fashion

The British Fashion Council (BFC) aims to accelerate the transition to a Circular Fashion Economy (CFE) in the UK and beyond. The IPF was created to help the British fashion industry meet its goal to be more resilient and circular through global collaboration and local action.

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